JMU program gets into hackers’ heads
From governments to corporations, cybersecurity has become a major focus in protecting customer privacy and assets — but a small group at James Madison University is also thinking about the hackers who commit crimes and what motivates them.
In February, three students will be the first to finish the university’s graduate cyber intelligence certificate program, launched last March by Edna Reid, a former FBI analyst who also started JMU’s undergraduate cyber intelligence courses in 2014. A second cohort began the yearlong program in August 2019, and a third will begin this August.
“It’s a certificate program to inform longtime professionals both within the cyber world and outside of it how they can apply cyber intelligence to their specific work,” says Reid, an adjunct faculty member who conducts research in cyber intelligence tradecraft. “I want to challenge the status quo that cybersecurity is just a random thing — it is done by people with their own motivations.”
Cybersecurity, Reid explains, focuses on the tangible measures put in place to target hackers and various forms of malevolent hardware. However, she says, cyber intelligence is the study of what motivates the people behind the attacks. Students learn about behavioral, cultural and geopolitical factors that impact hackers and the ethical and legal issues that companies, governments and other organizations must consider when protecting their systems from cyber threats.
Mary Lou Bourne, JMU’s director of technology innovation and economic development, signed up immediately for the certificate program when she heard it was being offered. She expects to graduate in February.
“It’s easy to forget that behind every single major ransomware attack or a smaller-scale hack is a person or people who need to be understood,” Bourne says. “I didn’t expect to love studying how ethics and philosophy impact our cyber decisions or my career.”
Only six universities nationwide have cyber intelligence programs, and JMU’s is entirely online. The 18-credit program can be finished in a year, but students also can take up to three years if needed. This flexibility is key to attracting professionals and underrepresented groups to the field, Reid says. Her hope is that the certificate program will grow into a full-fledged master’s degree program.
At Massanutten Technical Center in Rockingham County, high school students now have a cybersecurity lab that resembles a command center for monitoring cyberattacks, an idea by Reid to expand the local training pipeline.
“We don’t have many millennials or women or people of color in the realm of cybersecurity, let alone cyber intelligence,” Reid says. “This program is a way to bridge that gap.”